The Festival Express

By David Wencer, originally published November 17, 2010

Canada’s Travelling Music Festival

On June 27 and 28, 1970, a touring rock and roll show commonly referred to as the “Festival Express” opened in Toronto. Toronto was the first of three stops of a moveable musical feast; whereas most music festivals of the time were held in a single location, the Festival Express moved from Toronto to Winnipeg and then on to Calgary, with many of the performers including Janis Joplin, The Band, and the Grateful Dead travelling between venues on a Canadian National train chartered by the festival’s organizers.

The organizers of the show were Eaton-Walker Associates, who were Ken Walker and brothers George and Thor Eaton (the latter being great-grandsons of Timothy Eaton), three men in their mid-20s intent on organizing a unique kind of music festival. By 1970, rock festivals had become frequent occurrences across North America. The previous summer had seen the famous Woodstock Music & Art Fair, a concert which by 1970 was being hailed as a cultural success by Life Magazine, even if it was a financial and organizational disaster for the organizers. Woodstock, in fact, only proved financially profitable when the concert’s documentary film came out the subsequent spring; the film was still playing at Toronto’s Uptown Theatre the weekend that the Festival Express opened in Toronto.

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Operating out of a townhouse near Dupont and Davenport, Eaton-Walker Associates (with reported help from Maclean-Hunter Publishing, Ltd.) had organized shows in Toronto the previous summer, including the “Toronto Rock and Roll Revival” at Varsity Stadium, where 20,000 saw (amongst others) Chuck Berry, Little Richard, Jerry Lee Lewis, The Doors and the debut performance of The Plastic Ono Band.

In preparation for the crowd of 30,000 anticipated at Exhibition Stadium, Eaton-Walker hired 100 off-duty police officers to assist with security; the Festival Express took place only six months after the infamous Altamont Speedway Free Festival in California, where poor security was partially blamed for four deaths, including one homicide. Eaton-Walker also made sure ample measures were taken to cope with the anticipated number of “bad trips” brought on by hallucinogenic drugs. The Globe and Mail noted that the organizers worked ahead of time with the Queen Street Mental Health Centre “as routinely as they work with the fire department or the traffic control unit.”

Great Speckled Bird with Ian and Sylvia Tyson (Copyright Unknown)

The actual concert line-up featured many of rock music’s elite, including the Grateful Dead, The Band, Ian & Sylvia, Buddy Guy and Janis Joplin. Several acts only played in the Toronto portion of the festival, including Traffic and Ten Years After. The press mentioned Miles Davis as an expected performer multiple times prior to the concert, but did not actually perform.

Like Woodstock and Altamont, the Festival Express was hampered by groups of radicals who protested the high ticket prices, demanding that the concerts be given for free. A few weeks before the tour opened in Toronto, several local radical groups lead by the “May 4th Movement” began protesting the Festival Express’ ticket prices, condemning the organizers and musicians for charging what was then the highest rate ever for a Toronto rock concert: $16 for both days ($14 advance) or $10 for one day ($9 advance). According to a June 24th Toronto Star article, the protesting collective not only condemned the high prices, but demanded that 20% of the gate receipts “be turned over to them for daycare centres, a bail fund, and equipment for people’s parks.” The May 4th Movement, who named themselves after the date of the shootings at Kent State University the previous month, distributed leaflets and received publicity in the Toronto newspapers. They urged those who could not afford the high prices to storm the gates outside the concert to try to get in for free.

By all accounts, however, most of those who attended in Toronto paid, and the protestors comprised a minority. The Globe and Mail estimated that about 2,500 protestors actually turned up, some of whom broke in, but most of whom were initially detained outside.

But 2,500 protestors is still a considerable number, and confrontations did indeed occur. A few threw rocks, firecrackers or pepper at the police providing security, whereas others were content to merely hurl insults. Based on the newspaper accounts, between 27 and 34 arrests were made, a few for drug offenses (accounts suggest most casual drug use was ignored by police, with the Globe and Mail likening the blind eye shown by authorities to that traditionally applied towards hip flasks at the Grey Cup), others for assault. Most sentences were reduced to fines, but one 17 year-old from upstate New York was sentenced to thirty days in jail for assaulting a mounted officer, after he threw a rock (which missed), grabbed the horse’s bridle and spat in the officer’s face.

In order to appease the protestors demanding a free show, several musicians, lead by Jerry Garcia of the Grateful Dead, agreed to set up a second stage at nearby Coronation Park, where the public was admitted for free. This move appeased most of the protestors as several thousand people attended the free companion concert.

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Despite the episodes of violence, most concert-goers paid their way and behaved with goodwill and reason. Drug use, particularly marijuana and LSD, was prevalent, with accounts giving the number of “bad trips” being treated by units set up by the Queen Street Mental Health Centre near 1,000. In most of these cases, however, the staff found the sufferer could simply be “talked down” from their supposed emergency, and no serious drug cases were reported.

Relations between police and peaceful concert-goers appear to have been excellent, as seen in an incident reported on the front page of the June 27th Toronto Star. Toronto Police Constable John Sagar encountered eight college students up from Ohio to see the show (according to some reports, “Go to Toronto” shirts were a popular item in the U.S. all that month), who had camped out downtown in a tent. Sagar and his partner, Constable Gordon Srigley, much to the students’ surprise, invited the youths to get out of the rain and stay at the officers’ homes with their families for the duration of the weekend. One of the students, 16 year-old Rita Svanks, was quote as saying “we heard that Toronto cops were different from any American cops but never thought they were so friendly.”

Promoter Ken Walker had considered cancelling the show if the violence escalated too far, but claimed to be satisfied by the end of the weekend. Attendance figures for the Toronto dates vary considerably, but the Star reported that the Festival Express left Toronto having grossed just under $500,000, with the organizers still on pace to make a profit.

Reviews of the musical content were generally positive, Bill Dampier writing in the Star that “it was worth that much [the $16 admission] and more to see and hear Janis Joplin sing with the insistence and power of a pile-driver and generate enough personal electricity to light up a stadium all by her herself.” Upon taking the stage at 11:30 PM on Sunday, Joplin said “Man, I never expected this of Toronto. You’re really looking beautiful, man.” Three months after the Festival Express closed in Calgary, she was dead.

Ken Walker’s comments at the time about the festival being on target to make money may have been tactical, designed to encourage ticket sales in the remaining cities, where protests over ticket prices continued. Events reached a head when Calgary Mayor Rod Sykes tried to have the Calgary portion of the tour made free; Ken Walker claims he responded by punching Sykes in the face. By the end of the Festival Express tour the promoters had failed to recover their costs, and the Festival Express reportedly lost over $500,000.

Like the Woodstock organizers before them, however, the Festival Express promoters also invited a film crew. For years afterwards the film footage languished, finally edited and premiering as Festival Express at the 2003 Toronto International Film Festival to critical acclaim. The documentary includes footage of the shows at Exhibition Stadium and Coronation Park (as well as the Winnipeg and Calgary shows, and many memorable “jams” on the train itself, which was fully rigged with instruments and alcohol, in the hopes of fuelling creativity and comradery). Viewers can judge for themselves the merits of the music.

The released film also includes scenes of protest, providing a record of some of the dissent that the concert provoked. Some of the recent interviews included in the film suggest that the Toronto concerts were a complete debacle, but by contemporary newspaper accounts the Toronto portion of the Festival Express was a financial and organizational success, and an example of how musicians, promoters, security, mental health workers and audience members can overcome dissent and work together to create a wonderful event. At the conclusion of the weekend in Toronto, promoter Ken Walker was quoted in the Globe and Mail as saying “the media blew up the whole situation. They forgot about all the kids who just wanted to come down and have a good time. There were more of them and they made the festival, as far as I’m concerned, an operational and financial success.”

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